Arts for advocacy take a unique form in the Memorial Union Gallery’s latest exhibition, where visual art and a social cause collide.
“Sing Our Rivers Red,” an exhibition of earrings and other artworks, advocates for the murdered and missing indigenous women of the U.S. and Canada. It’s an issue that’s a void the exhibition’s coordinators say has a need to be filled and one that has received feedback from across the world — from Hawaii, Scotland, Ontario and beyond.
As a poet and practicing artist, Tanaya Winder, took interest in the murdered and missing indigenous women epidemic when her sister studying in Canada brought it to her attention. After a request to present a poem at an advocacy event for the issue, Winder began researching and decided to delve deeper.
“The deeper I got, the more concerned I became, and the more I wanted to do something about it,” she said.
Winder teamed up with her friend Hannabah Blue, public health services project manager at North Dakota State, as well as Netha Cloeter, MU Gallery coordinator, and Patty Stonefish, a colleague of Winder’s.
From there, the women initially wanted to hold a march from Fargo to Moorhead, just as what is done in Canada every year on Feb. 14 for advocacy.
Winder knew of a traveling art exhibit, “Walking With Our Sisters,” that handled the issue, and something she saw at a New Mexico poetry collective also piqued her interest.
Valerie Martinez, former poet laureate of Sante Fe, N.M., had used earrings in a vase to symbolize missing women of Africa. Though Winder didn’t jump at it right away, she did warm up to the idea days later.
“It just came to me. That’s a perfect example … for us to use for the indigenous women because our jewelry is very important … (It’s) something everybody can connect to,” she said. “Whether or not we all know what it’s like to experience the loss of a person … we all know what it’s like to lose something that … carried meaning, and I just figured the earrings would be a good way to symbolize that.”
With that, the exhibition had a design, and with Cloeter on board, it had a space.
As coordinator of the MU Gallery, Cloeter could accommodate the exhibition, and it is one she welcomed with open arms.
“I think there’s been a need to fill a void of awareness in the U.S. for a while,” Cloeter said,”and the idea of speaking out about this issue around this time of year, and there’s a precedent for that in Canada.”
Each earring in the exhibition represents an indigenous woman reported murdered or missing in the U.S. and Canada since 1980.
Sending out a call for earrings via social media in December, the MU Gallery originally set a goal of receiving 1,181 earrings to represent the total murdered or missing women in Canada.
“Sing Our Rivers Red” also speaks for the murdered and missing indigenous women of the U.S.; however, those figures are not known, Cloeter said, due to a lack of research efforts to uncover the number.
The response to the gallery’s call for earrings was met with enormous success, as an estimated 1,500 earrings were received from points all over the world, from Oceania to Ottawa.
Nearly 1,000 earrings have been formally processed, and that number is expected to grow as the process isn’t over, Cloeter said.
“It’s taking a while because it’s a lot of documentation and counting,” she said.
Once installed, the earring exhibition will be viewable alongside several artworks by Navajo muralist Nani Chacon.
As of last week, the MU Gallery was still receiving earring shipments, and while they all can’t be included in the show once it is installed, Cloeter does have hopes for any excess earrings.
“What we’re going to do with the leftovers is see if there can’t be enough for a separate installation that can travel somewhere,” she said. “The response has been incredible. It was a lot higher than we expected, honestly.”
When the exhibition wraps up on March 4, it will travel to the University of Colorado-Denver and from there will traverse the nation.
Its title, “Sing Our Rivers Red,” is a unique naming that Winder and Blue brainstormed after bouncing ideas off each other. The connection of the Red River to Fargo, Moorhead and Canada was there, as well as a universal connection to rivers with all people.
But there was also something else.
“In Canada, (citizens) have to conduct a lot of their own searches because the police don’t provide support,” Winder said, “so they have an initiative called ‘Dragging the Red’ where members drive the Red River just to … see if they can find their own bodies to return home, those who have been lost.”
The week of the exhibition’s opening, events are being held throughout the tri-college in advocacy of the murdered and missing indigenous women of the U.S. and Canada.
A 5 p.m. concert on Monday featuring indigenous music artists will follow the 11 a.m. opening of the gallery exhibition. The concert event in the Century Theater will include poetry and speakers on the issue, as well as those of sex trafficking and violence against women.
Tuesday will see a 5 p.m. screening of “Missing: The Documentary” in the Century Theater with a panel discussion led by the film’s producer and a law enforcement official.
On Wednesday, a women’s self defense workshop will take place from 5-9 p.m. at the Comstock Memorial Union at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Concordia College rounds out the tri-college collaboration with a speaker event honoring environmentalist Winona LaDuke from 6-9 p.m. Friday in Barry Auditorium.
It’s a week of events that welcome an exhibition that goes deeper than visual art on display but provides something accessible to everybody.
“There’s so many parts that there’s enough parts for people to all be able to contribute something” to the issue, Winder said. “It’s something that everyone can be a part of … there’s the potential for everybody to be a part of the solution.”
WHEN: Until March 4
WHERE: Memorial Union Gallery
MORE INFO: ndsu.edu/publichealth/news/detail/16729/